How to Run a Faster 5K with 8 Weeks of Focused Training
The question “How to run a faster 5K?” isn’t just asked by beginners or 5K specialists. Competitors of longer distances use the 5K as a benchmark for speed to calculate their potential 10K, half-marathon, or marathon times. If you want to stand a chance of breaking the 3-hour mark at the marathon, for example, you better make sure you can run a sub 19min 5K first.
“The 5K is the benchmark of speed for all distance runners.”
It all starts with a base of easy running. Whatever overall mileage you’re planning to do during a 5K training plan, you’ll have to come at least close to it in the weeks beforehand. You can’t jump from 25 miles to 50 miles in the span of 8 weeks, for instance. Base training also lays the foundation for the more demanding quality sessions that follow, such as tempo runs and VO2max intervals. A solid base gest you ready for ‘real training’.
What I also recommend during the base phase is a steady-state run once a week. High-end aerobic runs are roughly your 2-hour race pace, so between half marathon and marathon pace for most performance-minded runners. That’s at the aerobic threshold (LT1), the point before lactate starts to rise significantly. This intensity is well below your anaerobic threshold (LT2), the point where lactate rises faster than can be cleared.
But there’s yet another element that is crucially important during the base phase. Speed! I know this sends shockwaves to many of my readers but bear with me. I’m talking about tiny amounts of short repetitions that you can include in your easy runs twice a week. This ensures your fast-twitch fibers keep in good shape without inducing a lot of training stress. Do 5x 100m at 1500m race pace (800m race pace for advanced runners) with 100m walking recoveries. If you have any hills in your neighborhood, you can perform the repetitions I just mentioned at the same (perceived) effort.
You may have noticed the strenuous lactate threshold runs, VO2max intervals, or longer repetitions are left out during base training. The base phase serves as a transition between training cycles to give you physically and mentally a break from the rigors of hard training. You can optionally include a shortened version of VO2max and LT training biweekly or every third week to maintain those abilities.
8 Weeks to Race Day
The following eight weeks are designed with funnel periodization. Unlike linear periodization, this training concept develops both speed and endurance from non-specific to race-specific abilities. That means the first two weeks are highly polarized, featuring runs much slower as well as much faster than 5K-pace. The following phases gradually bridge the gap between endurance and speed, culminating in 5K-paced workouts in the final 2 weeks.
Aerobic support: Here, the fastest pace from the endurance spectrum is your current estimated half-marathon pace. It trains the transition from aerobic to anaerobic systems. 3 – 5 miles (5 – 8 km) sandwiched between 1 – 2 miles (~ 2 – 3 km) of easy running at each end. You should finish this workout feeling invigorated rather than exhausted. Otherwise, you have run this workout too fast. Adjust the pace to weather and terrain. If in doubt, use a heart rate monitor.
General speed: This pace is three race distances down from 5K. Hence, your 800m pace. Since the repeats are only 200m long, the lactic acid buildup is limited and won’t interfere with your aerobic base. The 200s at 800m pace is a fantastic workout to train your fast-twitch muscle fibers. You will also learn how to relax at speed and improve your neuromuscular efficiency. 5 – 10x 200m with 200m walking recoveries. In order to hit your weekly mileage goals, you should precede and finish this workout with 2 – 3 miles (3 – 5 km) at an easy pace.
Both key workouts should be at least 48h apart to ensure sufficient recovery. For example, you could do the steady-state run on Monday, the repetitions on Wednesday or Thursday, and the long run on Saturday. Whatever suits your work/life schedule best. The critical thing to remember is no quality back-to-back sessions of the workouts mentioned above. Decide for a structure and then stick with it for the remainder of your 5K preparation.
6 Weeks to Race Day
This training phase introduces lactate threshold training and long repetitions. This is the logical progression from the last training block’s steady-state runs and short repeats. Your lactate threshold won’t be high at this point but it will be continuously enhanced in the remaining six weeks until race day. On the other hand, the long repetitions can be considered the first workout to improve your VO2max. While 400s don’t let you accumulate much time near HRmax, the frequent and sudden drops in heart rate of the intervals increase your heart’s stroke volume.
Aerobic support: Whereas the intensity of the last two weeks was slightly below your lactate threshold, the tempo run is right at it. This roughly resembles your 1h-race pace +/- 10min, which is around 15K pace for most competitive-minded runners. You can run 3 – 4 miles (5 – 6 km) in one piece or break it into two tempo intervals with 60 – 90 seconds of slow jogging in between. I don’t recommend longer rest periods as it defeats the purpose of this workout.
Anaerobic support: 2 race distances down from the 5K, this workout is at your estimated 1500m race pace. The 400s at 1500m pace stimulate your anaerobic energy system specific to the VO2max workout’s demands that follow in the next training phase. As already mentioned, they’re also a great stimulus to increase your heart’s stroke volume. Depending on your level, run 4 – 8x 400m with 90-second rest periods. Don’t run faster than 1500m pace just because you can.
The long run on weekends should make up around 20 – 30 percent of your weekly running mileage by now and is roughly 50 percent longer than your midweek easy run. For low-mileage runners on 4-day running weeks, it can be up to 40 percent of weekly mileage. The purpose of the long run is to improve your fat metabolism, enlarge your glycogen stores, and train your fast-twitch fibers aerobically as your slow-twitch fibers fatigue.
Run faster than you thought possible
from the 5K to the marathon
4 Weeks to Race Day
At this point, your lactate threshold from the tempo runs as well as your lactate tolerance from the long repetitions, have you ready for more serious VO2max training. Your maximal aerobic capacity is the cornerstone of your 5K performance, after all. Since VO2max training is most effective in the range of 3K race pace to 10K race pace, both ends of the spectrum are included in this training cycle without touching upon 5K pace yet.
Direct endurance support: This is around 10K race pace for most competitors. At 90% of VO2max, the intervals are typically run for 1600m or maximal 6 minutes in duration, whichever comes first. 3 – 4x 1600m with a work-to-rest ratio of 2:1 – ideally slow jogging recoveries. The benefit of longer intervals is the total time spent near HRmax, as it takes about 1 minute to get your heart rate up to the desired levels for each interval.
Direct speed support: This is around 3K race pace for most competitors. At 100% of VO2max, the intensity is high, and therefore, the intervals are only 800m long. 5 – 6x 800m with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1 with slow jogging recoveries. There’s no point to intensify the pace above 100% of VO2max as any additional energy contribution comes from the anaerobic system which only increases the recovery time from this workout.
Your long runs reach peak mileage during this phase. For a 5K performance, long runs above 13 miles (~20K) are optional. Younger runners can run 1/2 of their long run’s distance at marathon pace or tag a fast finish of 1/4 the distance at half-marathon to 15K pace to their long runs. If you are a masters athlete (40+), you should stick to an easy pace unless your ability to recover is exceptional for your age.
2 Weeks to Race Day
Your VO2max will have improved significantly at this point. But you are not getting any awards for your Garmin’s VO2max reading, only fast race times. For that reason, the last two weeks before your scheduled peak performance will focus on race pace. The goal here is to enhance your running economy at 5K pace and prepare you mentally to hold up this intensity for the entire distance. Your maximal aerobic capacity will get its final touches, too, of course.
5K-specific 1: Longer intervals at 5K pace with shorter recovery periods. A good 5K race-specific workout is 4 – 5x 1200m at 5K pace with 90sec slow jogging recoveries. This also perfects your pacing as it would be impossible to complete all intervals at the same pace if you’re going out too fast. This pace will be your ability on race day. As with all hard sessions, start and end this workout with 2 miles (~3km) of easy running.
5K-specific 2: VO2max pyramid. 800m at 3K pace, 1200 at 5K pace, 1600m at 10K pace, 1200 at 5K pace, and 800m at 3K pace. Rather than setting a specific rest interval, observe the drop of your heart rate. After it has fallen by about 50 beats/min, you’re ready for the next interval. You perform this workout only once to practice pace changes. The last week before your race, you will do a modified workout I will mention in the next paragraph.
A gradual taper begins to ensure fresh legs in your race/time-trial two weeks out from race day. That means your long run gets cut to 75% two weeks prior race day and 50% one week prior race day of the duration of your long run compared to the weeks beforehand. The intensity and duration of the other runs are maintained.
In the final week, Monday’s session (or Tuesday’s session if your long run is on Sunday) is your ‘5K-specific 1’ workout, as mentioned above. Easy runs are cut down to 50 – 75% too. 3 – 4 days out from the race do 5x 400m at 5K pace with 200m recovery jogs. Rest for 1 – 2 days, and the day before the race run 2 – 3 miles (3 – 5km) easy and finish it with 5x 100 at 1500m pace to increase muscle tension so you won’t feel flat on race day.
Race Day or Time Trial
Since the 5K is fairly short, you don’t have to worry about carb-loading. Eat as you usually would the days leading up to the event, and your muscle glycogen stores will be sufficiently stocked. The reduction in training volume due to the taper leaves you with a calorie plus after all. But that doesn’t mean you can show up at the starting line without having had breakfast. Your liver glycogen stores – which regulate your blood sugar – might be depleted overnight.
There’s no need to fuel during a race that lasts less than an hour, let alone for a 5K. Leave your gels at home or have 1/2 one a few minutes before the race. You don’t need to drink either as fluids won’t reach your system until 20 minutes after being taken. You can rinse your mouth with water and pour the remainder over your head in hot conditions, but apart from that, fueling and drinking are not a concern for 5Ks.
The warm-up for a 5K race is more important than for longer events because the intensity is very high. You won’t run the risk of depleting your glycogen stores prematurely as it is a legitimate concern for the marathon. Hence, go for a 1 – 1_1/2 mile (~2km) warm-up including 4 – 5x 100m accelerations at 800m – 1500m race pace. The strides are of particular importance if you haven’t been able to do them the day before, as I recommended.
The start of a 5K is crucial as there’s little room to maneuver in a race where seconds rather than minutes make the difference between placing well or breaking a personal record. Don’t run the first 800m too hard, though. Your heart needs about 90 seconds to reach 95% of VO2max at which the 5K is raced. Until then, there’s a relatively high contribution from the anaerobic energy system that drives up lactic acid.
On the flip side, you can’t afford to start out too slow either as you won’t be able to catch up on missed time. The fastest pace is an even pace from start to finish. An exception is the last 400m of a 5K race. Here I urge you to pull the trigger and perform a long sprint. You’ll be amazed at how many competitors you can pick up in the final 400 and the seconds you can shave off your time. A final kick is also an excellent opportunity to determine your maximal heart rate.
Should you underperform on race day for whatever reason, you can attempt a PR at another 5K race or time trial a week later. That’s the beauty of shorter events. You will be able to hold a peak for about four weeks before the amount of race-specific training will erode your aerobic base. At that point, you will have to go back to base training and start a new training cycle reaching potentially even higher.
Since it is more challenging to improve speed than endurance, the 5K serves as a benchmark for your ability to race fast times across all classic road races. A fast 5K is certainly no by-product of running longer events such as the half-marathon or marathon. Most importantly, it is about employing the right workouts at the right time.
Sandro Sket, CSCS